The Unknowability of Others

Driftless BY David Rhodes. Milkweed Editions. Hardcover, 352 pages. $24.

The cover of Driftless

David Rhodes was still a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971 when Atlantic–Little, Brown editor Joseph Kanon bought his first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, a fantastical, dark tale of two Iowa cities, launching a prolific literary career. Two more novels appeared in quick succession: The Easter House (1974), which earned Rhodes comparisons to Sherwood Anderson, and Rock Island Line (1975), which John Gardner cited as an exemplar of the form in On Becoming a Novelist. In 1972, the writer settled into a quiet life in a century-old farmhouse in the southern Wisconsin town of Wonewoc with his wife, who was expecting their first child that April. By way of retiring his reckless youth, he bequeathed his motorcycle to a neighbor, who offered to let him ride it after fixing it up. Rhodes crashed the bike and shattered his spine—a mere two weeks after his daughter was born—paralyzing him from the sternum down and, in turn, paralyzing his career. He remains in Wonewoc, but he has since remarried and, because he never stopped writing, been rediscovered. His Robert Altman– esque new novel, Driftless (Milkweed Editions, $24)—set in the fictional, “driftless” Wisconsin town Words, whose residents include a dairy farmer and his wife fighting a corrupt milk cooperative, a female pastor whose life is transformed by a divine revelation, and a paraplegic woman with a wild streak—marks his triumphant reemergence in the book world after thirty-three years, as well as the return of his enigmatic, peripatetic protagonist July Montgomery, whom we met in Rock Island Line. We spoke on the phone in early October, and with candor and warmth, the soft-spoken Rhodes revealed his fear of forever being lost in oblivion, his apprehension about writing autobiography, and his difficult time away from the typewriter. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: What moved you to publish a novel after more than thirty years?

DAVID RHODES: I was approached by Ben Barnhart from Milkweed Editions—he was instrumental in this. I also had a number of people that I was showing the manuscript to as I was writing it, and I kept getting encouragement from them. Frankly, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to publish because I’d been out of it for so long. I felt like I’d been living on a desert island with a good supply of bottles and corks and paper and pens.

BF: Was there a real-life event that inspired you to write Driftless?

DR: A very good friend of mine died in a brutal farming accident. I was quite moved by that event. His wife asked me to play some part in orchestrating the funeral. About 250 people attended, and I didn’t know 230 of them. This created quite a dilemma for me—he was a very good friend, and then there were all these people who knew him and felt as deeply as I did, and I didn’t know who they were. The more I struggled with my feelings of loss, I started thinking I only knew one piece of my friend. To know him more completely, I would have to know everybody to whom he meant something. This led me to think about identity as something held compositely by all the people that we know.

BF: I can see how this notion influences Driftless, with its disparate cast of characters and the intricate ways their lives intersect.

DR: This was partly a failure, actually. My original intention was to have a character who was inspired by this friend, who would intersect with a variety of characters at different points in their lives. I envisioned a story with the central figure out of view. But as I worked, readers kept saying, “You gotta bring this guy out further and further. We gotta see more.” So I moved away from a protagonist for whom other characters are mere foils and treated everyone as if they were the main character.

BF: Your character July Montgomery has appeared in two novels now—actually, his name appears in The Easter House, so three. What is it about him that keeps calling you back?

DR: He has always been able to successfully embody the part of myself that’s very deep and very private. He is that very quiet part of me that looks out at the world and thinks, “How am I ever going to find a place to fit in here?”

BF: One character finds a panther in his barn threatening his livestock. The image struck me as one of the symbols of doom for the town, like the corrupt milk cooperative and emerging militia movement. Small towns seem to be on the verge of extinction amid the proliferation of corporations.

DR: There are always those characters, you find them in rural areas, who are obsessed with not letting things change. The funny thing about the cougar: I was so worried about putting that in there because many people, myself included, kept saying that it didn’t seem very realistic that one would ever turn up in a barn. So to make it seem more plausible, I’ve got the barn a long ways from the house and put it next to the woods. After I’d finished the manuscript, the local paper, the State Journal, had a story in which they found a cougar living in a barn. I was so relieved [laughs].

BF: Have you ever considered writing a memoir?

DR: I don’t have a definite yes or no on that. I’ve had this discussion through the years with many people, but I have never felt inclined to. It doesn’t seem fair to the people you write about. My father, for example, who’s still alive, by the way, and he’s ninety-one and drove his Prius up here from Iowa last week—it’s funny, he checks the mileage every time he puts gas in [laughs]—I love him, I revere him, I respect him, I hate him, I loathe him, I despise him. He is so big that anything I say about him would only be a piece of who he is. The same thing with my mother, and I guess in some ways it’s the same thing with myself. I recently reread Rock Island Line, because Milkweed wanted to republish it—I hadn’t read it in years. I blushed all the way through it. I thought, “Who is this guy that wrote this? He’s uncontrollable, he’s wild. Is that me? Was that me?” [Laughs] We change so much. That’s one of the problems I have about writing about friends and family. It’s very limiting, and it’s so hard not to be self-serving, hard to cover all the aspects of the life and personality. “Why not just cover what makes someone think well of me?” you ask yourself. All that said, though, I am working very slowly on several projects, and one of them is with a friend: We’re trying to discuss our view of time by presenting seven episodes from our lives that coincide; I’ve known this guy since I was a very young child. This is the first time I’ve tried to actually write about myself and my family.

BF: How long were you in the hospital?

DR: I spent about two years in the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. My wife rented an apartment nearby, and when I wasn’t an inpatient, I was visiting every day. After the accident, my whole system couldn’t cope and started breaking down in all kinds of different and strange ways; I was operated on something like fifteen times.

BF: When did you start writing again?

DR: Within a year after I was out of the hospital. Writing for me is something I just need to do. It’s a way of coping with my emotions and experiences, and if I don’t do it, I start feeling like an empty, leaking vessel. The writing helps me patch up some of the holes and retain some things. Every step of my life, I’ve had help, and that’s made all the difference in the world. Whenever I thought, “OK, I’m all through,” there’d be somebody who’d come along and say, “No, you’re not.”

BF: You wrote several novels in the past few decades that you decided not to publish.

DR: Writing them was important, but when I’d show the novels to somebody, they’d say, “Well, I don’t know,” and I didn’t know, either, so I ending up putting them away.

BF: Will we ever see them?

DR: No. Well, there’s one that I’m going to work on. It’s about Herod the Great, and it was insufferably long and dry as a desert. Nobody could read it, including me. I did learn a lot about myself and about religion researching the subject.

BF: You’re a fervent writer. What was it like to be away from it after the accident?

DR: It was difficult. One of the things about those kinds of traumas is that everything that you’ve done and learned up until that point seems to be irrelevant to what you’re going through.